INCITE PROJECT The Reminiscences of Whitney Dow
Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University 2017
The following oral history is the result of a recorded interview with Whitney Dow conducted by Mary Marshall Clark on November 15, 2017. This interview is part of the INCITE Oral History Project. The reader is asked to bear in mind that s/he is reading a verbatim transcript of the spoken word, rather than written prose.
Dow – 1 – 3
Session # 1
Interviewee: Whitney Dow
Location: Columbia University
Interviewer: Mary Marshall Clark November 15, 2017 Q: Okay, so we're on here, and this is November 15th, and I am Mary Marshall Clark, and you are Whitney Dow, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Dow: [00:00:13] Thank you for having me.
Q: Wonderful. So, I'm just going to start where I usually start, and just say—I'm kind of glad I don't know too much about you, actually. So, I'd really like to know where you come from— where you were born, something about your early life. And you can talk as long as you like about that.
Dow: [00:00:33] I was born in Buffalo, New York. My father and his family is from Buffalo, so I was born in Buffalo, but I only lived there for about a year. And then, my parents—my father was a history teacher, and he was teaching at a school in Buffalo, and he got a job at Germantown Friends, in Philadelphia. And, we moved to Philadelphia, where I lived for about three years. Don't have that many memories of that—I have no memories of Buffalo. I have some very small memories of Philadelphia. I think probably my earliest memories are of Philadelphia. I think there are two memories I have of Philadelphia.
One is being at a park with my mother, and my brothers and sisters, and seeing horses go by on a trail, and being very struck by the size of these huge animals. And the other was, there was some
Dow – 1 – 4 event at Germantown Friends, and they—the students had built a big model, a village of some kind, and they were singing this song "Scotland's Burning." I don't know if you know that song "Scotland's Burning." "Fire, fire, fire, fire, pour on water, pour on water," and they lit this model on fire, and this huge model just was engulfed, and they were all singing around this big conflagration, and that made a real impression on me, but those were my only two memories of Philadelphia: the burning of Scotland, and horses.
Q: Those are pretty outstanding memories.
Dow: [00:02:43] Oh, there was one other memory that I remember, that these neighbors—they seemed like adults, they were probably teenagers, you know, probably ten or eleven, or preteens. And they had a rain barrel, and the barrel was full of water, and they told me that it went down to the center of the earth, and that they had special—they could stand in it, and not go down, but then they hung me over it, and threatened to drop me in, and that also made a—made me terrified that I would go down the barrel to the center of the Earth. So those were three memories of Buffalo that, I don't know what the interconnectedness of those are.
So, anyway, when I was about, I think, four, my father got a job in Cambridge at EDC, the Educational Development Center, to run their social studies division, and we moved to Cambridge, where I lived until I was fourteen, I went away to school for a couple of years, and then I came back and finished high school, and left at eighteen, I think.
Dow – 1 – 5 Q: So, can you tell me a little bit more about your father? When we were getting coffee, you were talking about what an incredibly sharp person he is.
Dow: [00:04:17] Yes, my father was, or is—he's still alive, but when he was young, he was this beautiful man. I mean, if I showed you pictures of him, both my parents were just, like, stunningly beautiful, but he was beautiful in a way that—like, beyond movie star beautiful.
Q: What did he look like?
Dow: [00:04:52] He looked like a better-looking version of Gregory Peck. So, he [unclear] blond hair, and the sort of very sharp face, and he was a runner, he was super fit, and he was also incredibly charismatic. He was always telling stories. He was always driving the conversation. He was always surrounded by people. And he worked at EDC, and he worked with a lot of—my sort of connection—when he worked at EDC, he produced a lot of ethnographic films, so his friends were—his best friend was John Marshall, who traveled with his family into the Kalahari Desert, made contact with the !Kung, ended up marrying one.
And his other best friend was Timothy Asch, who worked for Napoleon Chagnon, and made first contact with the Yanomami, and did all these incredible films. And Fred Wiseman and Chippy [Zipporah] Wiseman, his wife, were like their tennis partners. There was a real sort of like film—or, then there were always sort of anthropologists, and primate specialists, and various things, because the work that he was doing was so much involved with anthropology, that there was always sort of a grad student living in the house. But he would always come home with
Dow – 1 – 6 somebody, and always come home late with somebody. And, you know, my mother was always in a rage, and he would, like, show up with somebody, and bring them to dinner, and there would be usually kind of a blowout that would turn into a long dinner conversation.
But, you know, when I think about a history of myself, the basis of who I am is all about growing up in Cambridge, and the experiences that I had there, the feelings they generated about myself, the feelings they generated about the world, how I felt about the environment, and the—
Q: Well, when you were talking about that, though I know a little about Cambridge, I don't really know a lot about it, so if you could give me a couple of examples of what you mean by your view of the world.
Dow: [00:07:45] Well, Cambridge in the '60s and '70s was—it was sort of this weird island of very white liberalism in the center of the Balkans of the racial upheaval in Boston. So—
Q: That's what I was wondering.
Dow: [00:08:07] Yes. So, early on, I wasn't that aware of sort of how complex the social dynamics were in Boston until I was a teenager. When I was younger, it was so much about sort of academia, and filmmakers, and anthropologists, and people—but at the same time, I felt oppressed by this really high level of achievement in academia. I wasn't a good student. I got in a lot of trouble at school all the time. I had a terrible time learning—I think probably now I would be diagnosed with some sort of dyslexia, or ADD. I had a very hard time working. I used to fight
Dow – 1 – 7 all the time in school, get into lots of fights. And, early on, I had this sense of someone who didn't fit in. I didn't fit in in this community.
Q: How exactly do you mean? In terms of the academic expectations, or the liberalism, or what?
Dow: [00:09:28] I didn't fit in. I always sort of felt like—you know, I think this is probably common, most people feel like outsiders, right? I'm sure when you do all these interviews, nobody feels like they're an insider. But, I really felt alienated from my—and I also felt this level of—I guess early on I sort of had a sense of the hypocritical nature of most life, that I would go to church and see people that I knew were fucking assholes, and just felt everything—I sort of questioned a lot of things early on. I always sort of felt alienated.
I don't know if I felt alienated in my family itself. I had a very complicated family life. My mother was very, very smart and talented, and very competent, but was sort of the infrastructure on which my father built this life. And so she made everything happen, and he sort of stood at the top of it, sort of absorbing the sunlight, and I think that was very, very hard for her. And she had three kids in three years, and then she had another one, so she had these young kids. My oldest daughter had a lot of emotional issues. There was lots of drama in my house all the time— lots of drama in my house, lots of—
Q: How many siblings did you have?
Dow – 1 – 8 Dow: [00:11:32] I have two older sisters, and a younger brother. I had an older sister who was very emotionally troubled, to the point where I think they sent her away to boarding school in seventh grade, because she just fought with my mother relentlessly. My second to oldest sister was an extremely driven piano player, and just played and played and played and played in the house. And you weren't allowed to, like, make any noise in the house, because she'd be practicing, and if she was—just would go berserk. My younger brother was sort of like the most beautiful boy you'd ever seen, and very, very charming and cute, and everybody sort of loved him. And then I sort of felt like I was this guy in the middle who was, you know, struggling.
And so, I think that there's two pieces of the trajectory of my life, if we're talking about what takes me to where I am today and what I'm doing. And, the obvious foundational piece is being surrounded by the work that my father did. When I would go to school, my father—my mother would say—he would never come home, so she'd say, "Well, stop by the office on the way home, and make sure that you get your father to come home with you," because otherwise he wouldn't come home.
So when I would stop by, "Oh, I'm just working on one more thing, da da da," and he would say go, and he'd give me a stack of films to watch—you know, dailies from Asen Balikci's series on the Netsilik Eskimos of Pelly Bay. And I would just watch these dailies, and I was really fascinated, and also kind of identified with the kids in it, in a way. Or, being at dinner and having Tim Asch come in after he'd been in the Amazon Forest, and sit on the kitchen floor with my dad drinking. And, you talk about your father being a storyteller—Tim Asch was, like, such a liar. And I learned early that all these filmmakers were fabulous in this way. It was all sort of a
Dow – 1 – 9 different era of—how people saw themselves going into these cultures was so phenomenally different. It was still sort of slightly Indiana Jones-esque, where there was no sense of cultural imperialism.
Everything was—it was the era of the white man with an agency going into these things—Asen Balikci with, like, a huge scar, and a glass eye, would sit at the table and talk about the shadow governments. I had lots of characters in my life that really—it seemed very big and romantic. So I had the stories of—or some guy, he was a primatologist who had just come back from three years living in the bush with baboons and would talk about his experience. So, there was that, on one side, and then there was this incredible feeling of alienation from my peers. I went to a private school called Shady Hill that was very progressive, and I always felt like a complete outsider. I always felt like I didn't really fit in with these sort of rich, wealthy kids, and I started doing drugs really early on in the fifth grade.
So, there was this other part of me where I started—two things happened in the fifth grade. One was drugs, and the other—I remember clearly one day—every day we'd go out, the boys and girls would go out to recess, and then we'd go play soccer or football or dodgeball, and the girls would go, whatever they'd do. I just remember one day just heading out and looking and saying, I want to go with the girls. Like, that's the place to go. Wendy and Anita were going, and they were with me, and my friends were like, what are you doing? I was like, "I'm going with Wendy and Anita. You'll understand why in a few years, I think." [laughs]
Q: This was in the fifth grade?
Dow – 1 – 10
Dow: [00:16:30] Fifth grade, yes. And I was struggling so much at school that my parents took me out of that school and put me into public school in the sixth grade, which was—I went from a coddled, little environment, this school where every class had its own little building, and we built Greek armor, and had Olympics, and put on plays, to this front of the class—and in some ways, I thrived, and in some ways, it just fired this thing in me where it really sort of like brought up these feelings of being, again, really alienated from that environment. And I became even a more difficult kid, and I fought in school every day. I was always fighting. I was always getting sent to the principal's office. I was always getting—they'd be calling my parents, "Whitney's in trouble again, can you come get him?" And they'd say, "We have to deal with him sixteen hours a day, you have to deal with him." They wouldn't even come get me.
I guess I'd say there were two parts of me. There was this intellectual part of me that really appreciated the ideas, and things, but there was also this rage, and really liking the pushback. I always liked the pushback. I always hated authority. I always liked to make my point by, like, banging up against people. And I was there for a couple of years, and I sort of transformed from this little, preppy kid to—I took on all the trappings of like a Boston street kid from the '70s. I had big platform shoes, and bell bottoms, and silk shirts, and sort of like swoopy hair, and—
Q: What decade was this? I mean, what part of what decade?
Dow: [00:19:17] This was early '70s.
Dow – 1 – 11 Q: Early '70s. I had bell bottoms too.
Dow: [00:19:20] Yes. So, I went to Filene's Basement, and bought all this stuff. And, I looked—I just rejected everything about [unclear] culture—wanted to create this sort of thing. And, after two years—and things were getting worse and worse—they decided to put me back in the original school, this Shady Hill. So I went back for eighth grade. And, I went back, and I felt like I was in a full-scale war. I was really disliked in the school. I was this alien kid, and the kids were afraid of me. I liked that fact that they were afraid of me. I was on the sports teams. I was sort of the designated hit man, to go out, and if we were playing lacrosse, the coach would say, "Go in and take out that player," and I'd just like chop him down. And it was a very odd role to play. [laughs]
Q: Harrison Ford, in Indiana Jones.
Dow: [00:20:38] Yes. And I had a teacher there who really, really, really liked me. She saw something in me.
Q: What was her name?
Dow: [00:21:00] Her name was Miss Caudill [phonetic], Edie Caudill. And she was an older woman—she was probably in her sixties at the time. And, she sort of reached out to me, and she really kind of helped me get through that year in a way that—I was definitely not an easy kid to have. And at that time, my sister had gone away—was still at boarding school. She was at a
Dow – 1 – 12 school called Buxton, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and I really wanted to go to boarding school. My two older sisters had gone to boarding school. My older sister was at Putney, the other one was at Buxton. And, my family and I agreed that I should move out of the house into a boarding school.
And I think at this point, I was—I'm trying to remember. I was doing a fair amount of drugs, smoking pot before school. My best friend was a few years older than I was, and he had inherited—I can't remember—his family had a lot of money, and so there was lots of access to things, and we would run around and get in trouble. And it was also during the time—things, remember, were a lot less locked down on whether you could go to bars, whatever you'd do— things were a lot more open. And again, I just remember being so—just, really felt alienated, alienated from my community. I didn't really have close friends. And, my sister's school—there were some students there. I can't remember if I went to visit her, but they were very sort of solicitous to me, and nice to me. They were these kids from New York. And I really wanted to go to this school.
I'm trying to remember, I can't remember if it was this or the next year, but I also had an experience where I went to New York, where my sister was friends with Marco Williams, my partner. And he's about five years older than I am, so he was a senior. I think I was still in eighth grade. My sister wanted to go to visit him in New York on New Year’s Eve, and she was probably a junior. He lived on East 7th Street, between 1st and 2nd. He'd grown up on the Lower East Side. And in my parents' wisdom, they said, "Well, you can go if you take your little brother," as a chaperone, I guess. I don't know what they were thinking. So, we took the train
Dow – 1 – 13 down. I had not really been out of Boston, Cambridge much. So I went down—this was probably 1976. So, Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1976. It was, like, hardcore. I had never seen anything like a neighborhood like that.
The house was a parlor floor apartment in a townhouse over a Ukrainian bar in the basement— bars on the windows, those huge police locks that clicked into place, those big bars that went into the floor. And I went down, and all her friends, all these high school kids—they were probably seniors—were there, and here's my sister with her eighth-grade brother, and they were like, what are we going to do with him? So their solution was just to load me up with like every illicit substance they could. They just, like, poured drugs into me, and then locked me in the apartment and went out.
And I remember sitting there, in this apartment, and there are, like, sirens going up and down the bar. The floor was—there were people singing, fights, bottles crashing, people screaming in the streets, gunshots, everything, and I just remember, blasted out of my mind—I was probably thirteen—and just being, like, I love this city so much. [laughs] This is where—it just felt so alive compared to where I came from. It just felt so elemental and alive. And I feel like, when I think about it, the things I always sort of pushed towards in all my life has always been extreme experience, extreme emotional experience, extreme relationship, extreme things that make me feel alive, and I felt alive in a way that I had never felt before. And at that time I was like, I'm going to live here. I'm going to find a way to get back to this town at some point and live here. I kind of knew at that moment that New York was my destiny. I didn't know how I was going to get there.
Dow – 1 – 14
Circling back earlier, because also an important, I think, piece of my life, that you'll see when I get later on, is, growing up, we would go to Nantucket every summer. And back before Nantucket was Aspen, you know, it was cheaper to go there, hadn't been developed yet, than go to the Cape, because my parents bought a little piece of land, and built a house, and we would drive down there. And when I was young, when I think about elemental things, from a very early age, I just loved the water, and I would spend so much time in the water, on the water, in boats, swimming, rowing.
When I was a kid, I would row everywhere. I would sail everywhere. The feeling of just being directly connected to the flow of something—my Dad had a boat, and we would sail from Hyannis to Nantucket, and then later on, when we were a little older, at one point he took a boat from Nova Scotia, [Canada] to Maine with us, and we were tiny little kids, and sailed across the Bay of Fundy in the middle of the night. And he loved drama, so there was always some drama that he would create.
So, very early on, I really—and then I went to this camp in the summers, in the Adirondacks, and I sort of got there, and was a better sailor than the person who ran the waterfront, and I ran all the sailing trips for the camp. I just remember, early on, that was something that was very much this weird way—it was very similar, later on, I find, to filmmaking, of sort of tapping into the flow of something to get to some end.
Dow – 1 – 15 I think when I was thirteen, I found a boat in the woods, and I dragged it back to the house, and spent a year fixing it up, and painting it, and getting the engine running. And then that sort of became my transport in Nantucket to go around. I would go catch fish, and clean them, and go to the restaurants and sell the fish fillets for 25 cents a pound to the back of the restaurants, and then use the money to buy gas to go out again. When we were, I think, twelve or thirteen, we were very free to—I don't think that a twelve-year-old kid can sell fish to a restaurant now. [laughs] So, I had sort of this weird mix of relationship to ideas, and education, and felt more this sort of—feeling an alienation, this feeling of being connected to the world through the water.
And then, I think, also, drugs were a big part of my life early on. And I think it was all sort of a similar thing, of trying to find some sort of connection to a universe.
Q: Broader than that of Cambridge?
Dow: [00:31:13] Broader than that of Cambridge, and also that were, like, really extreme emotional experiences. So, I decided to go away to school.
Q: This is the first time, by the way—I just noticed you said you decided to go away to school. Before, it's always been your parents decided to do this or that, so—
Dow: [00:31:50] Yes, I think it was. I think you're probably right. They were sort of trying to figure out, what do we do with this kid? I think they started taking me to a psychiatrist early on, because they were sort of trying to figure out—I had tutors, I had various things, and the rap on
Dow – 1 – 16 me was always like, Whitney's full of rage, and a chronic underachiever. He's really smart, or that was sort of the [unclear], but he doesn't do well in school. So they were sort of struggling to figure out what to do with me. I think that this was sort of coupled with—when I was young, I also had asthma. So early on, I had really bad asthma, and I couldn't do a lot of stuff, and my mother would read to me a lot. And I would read, read, read. So I got to be a very good reader early on. But that was always something that I dealt with. I always had to have inhalers growing up. So, I went to this school—
Q: Which school is this?
Dow: [00:33:21] This is called Buxton, and it's in Williamstown, Massachusetts It was a school started by a bunch of communists in the '20s, this sort of like alternative thing. And it's tiny— ninety kids over four grades. There were no rules, just customs. And, I got there, and it's sort of hard for me to remember the chronology of events. Because there's certain events—because one event that I skipped over that was sort of formative, in a way—there were two things, going back to Cambridge, when I think about the work I'm doing now.
I think I may have told you these stories before, but one is being—I think when I was around thirteen, before I went away to school, I was a counselor one summer at the local YMCA, in Central Square, with my friend Nahila Fleur [phonetic], who I played a lot of street hockey with. And most of the kids were black and Puerto Rican. And we decided to take them to go swimming in the North End, public pool, and we got on the subway, and went to the North End, and we went to the pool house, and the kids were getting undressed, and we were surrounded by
Dow – 1 – 17 a group of white kids. They probably were eighteen [unclear]—they seemed like massive adults. And they said, you know, "If any of those kids go in the pool, someone's going to get seriously hurt." They didn't use the word kids. And I remember being, like, completely—when I say completely trying to figure out how, at thirteen, do I explain to these kids that they can't go into the pool, because they're black, and not really having the language—and that really kind of shook me, in realizing that I didn't have the control over my environment that I did. I didn't really totally understand the environment.
My grandfather was an Italian immigrant, and was a sculptor who lived in Little Italy. I had spent a lot of time in Little Italy with him. He was like the king of Little Italy. He would walk around with his coat on his shoulders and say hello to everybody. He was very well known. And then here I am going in, like, recognizing this crazy, fucked-up piece of it. And I remember when I was hanging around in Cambridge, if you were on the subway, if you were fooling around, the cops would be like, if you don't stop fooling around, we'll put you off in Roxbury, and if you were black, if you don't stop fooling around, I'm going to put you off in Southie. And I spent a lot of time before I'd gone away to school hanging around with my friend in Harvard Square, and doing a lot of illicit stuff.
But, so when I got to high school, I immediately fell in with these two kids from New York City, Adam Stern and Eric Lieber. And I think that they were one year older than I was. And they were sort of classic New York City latchkey kids—both a child of divorced parents, [unclear] school, and much, much more experienced in the world than I was. I mean, Eric was just a fiend—he was just like a thief, and a scammer. He was a graffiti artist, and he stole, just,
Dow – 1 – 18 relentlessly. He stole all kinds of things, and then he would want to, like, store them in my room. He was sort of, you know—everything was about products, and everything was about brand names. And, the three of us sort of created a cabal. And, he was dealing all kinds of drugs, and he got me into dealing drugs. And, we were doing heroin. He had started—he would show up with heroin, and we would snort heroin. I was probably fourteen at this point. And it was just, like, we went down this rabbit hole of pretty quickly creating mayhem. And it was that point when I really, really, really got heavily into drugs, where I was, like—I did LSD, and I was like, this is the greatest thing I've ever done in my life. I'm going to do it every day.
Dow: [00:39:01] Extreme, yes. And just like, a connection to things. And it was also in that time, I even had teachers telling me, you should take LSD, because it will open your mind and make you more open. It was a funny school. The teachers were sleeping with the students. You know, it was a very different time. And I sort of went down this—at the same time, I was a decent student. And I sort of made it through that first year, and just went into this, like, incredible—my freshman year of high school was sort of like this mayhem.
I came back to Cambridge, and my friend, Joey Wheaton, who had inherited a lot of money, and he had bought a car, and we went out, and we did—we bought a hundred hits of acid, and tripped for a month straight. Every day for a month. And it was both, like, an incredibly extreme experience, an incredibly eye-opening experience, and, I sort of lived in this world where we
Dow – 1 – 19 would just—it was definitely a transformational moment in my life. It did open up those things where I could see relationships that I couldn't see before.
I felt two things. I felt, one, it fundamentally transformed the way that I saw the world and experienced the world. It also, I think, exacerbated some of the mental issues I had around being able to focus and doing my schoolwork, because there was so much speed in the stuff. It definitely had positive and negative benefits. [laughs] And it really—I'm trying to sort of think about those times. It's funny, because I have kids now, and when I look, I think, holy shit, I was fourteen, I was going to bars every day and drinking. We were going to clubs and seeing music. We were getting wasted and driving around in this Chevy Blazer that my friend had bought.
I can't even imagine, at fourteen, the stuff that we were doing, and surviving—and coming home and having dinner with my parents, like, blasted out of my mind, and how they didn't know. They just had zero idea. They were in their own world. They were very, very sheltered. They grew up in the '50s, and my father, despite his sort of [unclear]—he'd been raised Christian Scientist. My mother was very unexposed. So they had no idea that your fourteen-year-old could walk out the door, and what they could walk into in 1972, or—
Q: It was there in the '70s.
Dow: [00:43:30] —'70s, it was just there, everywhere. And I went back to school the next year—
Q: This was eighth, or ninth?
Dow – 1 – 20
Dow: [00:43:50] Now—I was in ninth grade, now I'm in tenth—going back to tenth grade in high school. And that summer, really, between my freshman and sophomore year, was really a defining summer. That summer I spent with Joey, and then I went to Nantucket. My friend had a house in this little island off there, and I lived there, and I feel it was just like—I mean, it was really idyllic, but it was just, like, what we were doing was just so—the amount of, like, drugs— pot, and acid, and cocaine being consumed was just phenomenal. How we even paid for it—I'm like, I was fourteen. I think I was actually selling pot, and making money selling pot, and then— it was not a good setup. And so, as you can see, this went very far away from, like, the social justice worker. [laughs] But I went back, and—I'm trying to think how we're ever going to get to how I actually [laughs] got here—
Q: Oh, you don't need to worry. We can do another one later.
Dow: [00:45:35] —I'm ever going to get to—because it's a long way, decades, to a glimmer of how—all the stuff weaves together, but it takes a long time. I spent many, many, many, many, many, many years in the wilderness before I—because I'm still in the wilderness. But, high school, went back for second year of high school. We were still doing a lot of bad stuff. And my sister—the school had this crisis at the end of the year, and they kicked out a bunch of students, including my sister. They said, "You can graduate, but you have to leave now." And it was all built around her being a negative influence on the community. She had a lot of mental problems. And they kicked her out. When they announced they're kicking her out, I went in to the faculty meeting. I kicked the door in, and, like, smashed the window, and—
Dow – 1 – 21
Q: Because she had been kicked out?
Dow: [00:46:52] Yes—like, dressed down the entire faculty. So, I was asked to go home after that, as well. But, they suspended me. When I came back, the principal came down, and he said, Whitney, you know, you're a really interesting person, and there's something in you, despite all your fucked-up-ness, that I kind of see you as a leader, that you could be—and your friends, Adam and Eric, we're kicking them out, and we're kicking out most of the—but we'd like you to stay. And I just remember thinking, well, fuck you, you're kicking out my sister and all of my friends, was so—that I really wanted to leave. And, I talked to my parents, and I visited—I think that I went—there was a place called Cambridge School of Weston, outside of Boston, and that seemed like a better fit for me. So I transferred. I moved home, and went to Cambridge School of Weston.
Q: What was that like? I mean, why were you first attracted to it?
Dow: [00:48:20] Because it was unconventional. It had this deep study program. I mean, it's funny—I went to the most alternative schools growing up, and I look at my own kids, and I'm like, God, they really benefited from more traditional schools, learning how to do shit. [laughs] You know, it was such a joke. It had co-ed dorms. It had a really, like, free hippie culture. And getting there was like nirvana. It was just like—the amount of sex and drugs just—it was so much fun. And I don't think I learned much there. At that point, I was playing music. I was
Dow – 1 – 22 playing in a band. And you could—for some classes, I wouldn't write a paper, I'd write songs, and perform them. It was really that era of—like, every child left behind.
And, I continued to do lots of drugs. And at this school, entire dorms would take LSD all at once, and just have these big ragers. And I was elected to the judicial committee, so I was the guy who dispensed justice to the students if they broke the laws, which, I was very popular, because I was not judge Roy Moore. But, at the same time, I really felt like I had no idea where I was going. I kind of felt like I don't have anything to offer. I remember just thinking, like, the only thing I could actually do to make a living is be a drug dealer. I really don't feel like I am smart enough. I don't feel like I know anything about myself, anything about the world. Everything seemed hard. God, there's whole sections that I just feel like drop out here. I think after my sophomore year— was it after my sophomore year? Before I started there, I think I went to something called Crossroads Africa, which is—do you know it?
Q: I've heard of it.
Dow: [00:51:32] Where I went, and I spent the summer in St. Lucia, and working—it's like junior, sort of Peace Corps. So, there's so many of these things now for students, but back then, [unclear] where you would go work. And it was also not vetted the way things are now, so that we were housed in a brothel, called the Graveyard Disco. And it was literally a bar and a brothel in a graveyard. And it was this incredible summer where I went—I think I must have been sixteen, because I think it was the summer of my sophomore year. And there was a girl on the trip that I met, and it was like the freedom we were allowed at sixteen—I think that we had a
Dow – 1 – 23 room together. And, we sort of had this little house together. We were both sixteen. And we would go, and, like, paint houses during the day.
And, again, I can't believe we're living in this graveyard. And, it's funny, because I've met friends—I've met people from St. Lucia, and, actually, the woman who took care of my kids for a while is from St. Lucia. And when I told them I lived there—it's a notorious place, the Graveyard Disco. And, one night, someone tried to rob us. And this guy came, and he stuck a knife in one of my friend's stomachs, and he, like, didn't stab him too deeply. And we ended up running—and, again, he had a great name—and he was this notorious criminal named Charles Cochon, you know, Charles the Pig. And Charles Cochon would then come up to the graveyard and stand in the graveyard and, like, scream at us. And ultimately, he was arrested, and we had to go testify against him in the trial, and I remember seeing him taken away in this truck, in some [unclear].
But this was sort of a weird interlude in between this. And, I also spent a lot of time during that period hitchhiking around. My sister would go to Putney, so I'd hitchhike from Buxton, which is in Western Mass, to Putney, and I remember my parents driving me out to the Southeast Expressway in Boston, and dropping me off, at like fifteen, to hitchhike back to school. It was, like, crazy, right?
Q: We did those things in the '70s.
Dow – 1 – 24 Dow: [00:54:36] Yes. I would hitchhike—I would go visit my Dad's friend in Rhode Island, I'd hitchhike—or I'd hitchhike to the Cape. Again, I was like fourteen or fifteen. It was crazy, right? And I loved it. Again, that feeling of being totally—and that's what I feel like I always come back to—I just remember, like, totally out, on the edge of something. On the edge of something that's going to lead to some sort of knowing. And it's very similar to, like, doing an interview. You get into this thing where you just sort of go out, and, like, that intense piece when you're working, when you're trying to interview someone whom you're trying to get to know.
So, where am I? I'm fifteen, sixteen. I'd moved into a new school. And this school was just bananas. And I met a girl there who would soon become a defining person in my life, when I was a junior. I don't think we got together when I was a junior, but I really fell for her. And, going through that junior year—again, kind of hazy—a lot of music, a lot of drugs, and that summer, I was going to do another program. I had done the Crossroads Africa, and I was going to go and be a counselor at a camp. And then this girl called me, and said, "Why don't you come visit me in Florida?"
And at that point, I had had a VW bus that I bought. I had set up a carpool business. Because I was a day student at this boarding school, I would drive kids to school. And so much to my parents' unhappiness, I said, well, I'm not going to go to be a camp counselor, I'm going to drive to Florida to go meet this girl. And I got into this van, and drove to Florida with a German girl whom I met. And we picked up some hitchhikers, who were this couple on the lam, running from—we had this crazy trip. They were running to Tampa, or something. I don't know where they were going. And I drove down, and—
Dow – 1 – 25
Q: Did they open up to you and tell you they were [crosstalk]
Dow: [00:57:35] Yes. Yes, they told us they had shot somebody, or something. It was this crazy trip. And, so I had this—the German girl was in, like, the lotus position the entire time, and these guys were sort of huddling and hiding from the law. And, I guess I must have been seventeen. And, arrived in Florida, in Sarasota, dropped—you know, the fugitives were fine. They got off to wherever they were going. The German girl, I don't know what happened with her. And, moved in with this girl—and her parents were incredibly wealthy, garmento people, and they had this big house on the water in Sarasota. And, she had a boyfriend down there who was probably— like, she was seventeen. He was probably twenty-seven or thirty. He was sort of this horrible hippie. And, he hired me as a carpenter or something. But I ended up moving in on her. And that sort of became the beginning of this long relationship.
Q: What was her name?
Dow: [00:58:58] Her name was Elaina. And it became sort of one of the defining relationships of my life, that we were together on and off for ten years—eight or ten years. And, she was the first person I ever loved, you know, was in love with—person who, just, really loved me, in a pure way—I guess maybe it wasn't a pure way. She was incredibly fucked up. She had a very complicated, fucked-up family. So, that summer, I came back, and did my senior year at Cambridge School, again, playing music, spending a lot of time with this girl, to the point where my parents threw me out of the house, because I wasn't supposed to have her in my bedroom,
Dow – 1 – 26 and getting caught with her in my bedroom led to my expulsion from the house for a while. And, finally—I had no plans to go to college. I didn't really think that I could go to college. I thought I was going to be a musician. I really had no real sense of what I was going to do. And when I graduated from high school, I didn't apply anywhere. I said I was playing in this band. I probably weighed like 125 pounds. I had no money. I was living with some friend's family for a while, until they threw me out. Then I moved into a little apartment in Allston where I lived on, like, lettuce sandwiches—
Dow: [01:01:52] Allston. It's part of Boston. And—
Q: I'm sorry, I interrupted the story about lettuce sandwiches. [laughs] So you really didn't have any money at all.
Dow: [01:02:02] I didn't have any money. I would go in, and, again, I kept getting skinnier and skinnier. And, Elaina had gone to the California College of Arts and Crafts—it's called CalArts now, in Oakland, [California]. So she moved to San Francisco, and at a certain point, I was like, I should go out there. And, I flew to San Francisco, lived with her, and—oh, I think that we had had some—you know, we had a very, very, very volatile relationship. And during the time we were together that senior year—I'm trying to remember what sort of like the arc of events were. She had slept with a friend of mine, and I had gone to his house, and dragged him away from the dinner table, with his family, and fractured his skull, and broke my hand, and we both ended up
Dow – 1 – 27 in the hospital, being screwed back together. And that moment is—when I said she was the first one I ever loved, and she was sort of the person who closed something off in me, that never has been reopened. Like, once she, in my mind, betrayed me, that somehow transformed me as well.
And we had sort of gone back and forth. When she moved to California, I went out there, lived with her in San Francisco. I was working at a bakery on the Castro. I was playing in a band, with the owner of the San Francisco Giants' son. I'm trying to remember the trajectory of everything out there. When I went, I think that I spent a good portion of the year out there—when I came back, my grandmother asked me to go to Europe with her. Wait, I can never remember—no, no, this is not—I'm getting way ahead of myself. No. So, I went there, and after a while, I was like, I'm a shitty musician. This is not a thing—and I really need to go to school. I called my parents, and I said, "Well, I think I would like to go to school."
Q: You wanted to be good?
Dow: [01:06:15] I wanted to be good?
Q: I mean, you wanted to be—you said you were a shitty musician. You wanted to be good at something.
Dow: [01:06:21] I wanted to be good at something, yes. And yes, I wanted—I just felt like this was not a road that was going to lead to anything. And the relationship with the girl was very complicated. Like I said, super volatile, just super passionate, just, like, not healthy, but like a
Dow – 1 – 28 total addiction. And my mother said, "Well, you know, I know you don't want to apply to school, but you did okay on the SATs, so I sent your scores out to some people. I sent them to the places that didn't require an application, and you actually got into University of Wisconsin and University of Colorado." Good Moms are—so you actually have some options.
Q: [Laughs] Go mom, I guess.
Dow: Go Mom! Now, why I chose University of Wisconsin over Colorado, I have no idea.
When I think back on it, you know—oh, I think I wanted to study anthropology, and they had a good anthropology department. So, I flew from San Francisco, in January, with, like, a couple pairs of jeans and T-shirts, and it was, like, thirty below in Wisconsin. And at this point, I'd been out of school for a year and a half. I was already older than most of my—because I was held back—I wasn't held back, but I started late, because my birthday's in October. So, I didn't move into the dorms. I moved into a room over a bar, called Chestie's. And I basically would just eat at this bar. So I went to University of Wisconsin, and the time I spent there was, sort of, what happened there? I realized that I did not want to study anthropology, because it was not taking films of Yanomami and drinking with my father, it was more, you know, massive kinship charts, and it had gone—the stuff that all my parents' friends did was really not—it was horrible stuff they were doing [laughs]—it was no longer sort of—tell me if I'm, like, if this—is this—
Q: No, no, this is so multilayered and rich.
Dow – 1 – 29 Dow: [01:09:13] Oh, okay. So, I went to Wisconsin, and a couple things happened there. First, I realized I didn't want to study anthropology. I started studying Russian literature. I also signed up, my first semester, I was looking for a science class—because it's a big ag [agriculture] school, and you could get a science credit for studying the introduction to dairy cattle judging techniques. So, I signed up for that class. So, I think my first semester was going to a barn, and there's, like, all these farm kids there. And I came from San Francisco, so I had like a D.A. [phonetic]—I looked like someone from Duran Duran, you know. They thought I was insane. And the teacher was this, like, guy—like, this square—he looked like a drawing of a person who would be our instructor on cows, but he had this little mustache, and short sleeves, and a square tie.
And, I remember we sit in the class, and he opens this briefcase, and he takes out a plastic Jeep and a plastic VW bug. And he was like, if you guys had to choose right now, how many of you would drive this bug home out of the class? Raise the hand. And then, how many of you would choose the Jeep? I chose the Jeep. And he put them down. "Those are the kind of snap decisions you're going to learn to make in this class." And, so for that month, I learned all the different parts of a cow. I had to show a cow in a little international livestock festival, where I won third place—a calf, actually. I had to—my final exam was ranking thirty-six cows, one to thirty-six, and give oral reasons for why they were first. So, it was actually really interesting.
But, I also made a lot of good friends there. And the school was really open, and very, very collegial, and there was music every night. And the year that I started, a few things happened. I made a couple of really close friends: som girls, some boys. And I realized—that was the first
Dow – 1 – 30 time that I realized that I had a brain, that I was like, okay, I can go out—that outside of, like, the universe of Cambridge, in the universe of Wisconsin, I actually was a lot more exposed and a lot smarter than a lot of the people that I was with. And I would go out to the clubs—they'd only open until one—I'd go out and schmooze [phonetic] and I'd come back and I'd write my papers from like one to three, and then I'd go—I didn't know how to type, so I'd go to the typing service. There was like a gay typing service, and I would sleep on the couch while they would type up my papers.
I was doing really, really well academically. And my teachers really liked me. And I was having this incredible—both, I had all kinds of girlfriends, but I was also—that's kind of also when my drug use peaked, because that was when I started—I made this friend, Steven Miller, who was a very good friend, and we would go out all the time, every night. And, there was like a group where we started—he started using intravenous drugs. And he was like, do you want to try? And I was like, yes. And I remember starting to shoot up with him, and having an experience—I think it was the second time I did it. I don't know if you've ever done intravenous drugs, but the power of, like, cocaine hitting your bloodstream—it's like someone putting their foot on the accelerator of a car, and you can feel yourself accelerating. But you can also feel that you're on a trajectory that if it doesn't stop, you're going to die. You can feel death at the end of it. You can feel the arc towards death, so you kind of go like this, and then the next time you go like this, and each time, you want to go higher, right? And you can actually feel what it is like to overdose, and die.
Q: Because of the speed of the acceleration?
Dow – 1 – 31 Dow: [01:14:44] It's like someone putting some—I don't know if you've ever, like, had a glass of wine and it goes to your head. But if you had like a rheostat where you could turn that, and just like, turn it up, up, and just control it. Like, okay, well I'm drunk—I can make myself massively drunk to the point of passing out, just, in seconds. And you can feel that, it hits your system, and it's like, only thing I can equate it to is like a rocket taking off. You feel like your brain [unclear]. And, that was kind of the peak of my—I realized that, okay, if I keep going down this road, the ultimate destination is going to be death. And it scared me, and I stopped, and that was kind of the end point of when I was really doing a lot of drugs. I started in fifth grade, really accelerated through high school, and that first semester of college, it was like—it wasn't that I was done. You know, I had reached a peak, and I was coming down.
And, I made another good friend who lived out in the country, and he went to Wisconsin, but his father was a professor at Columbia [University] in the statistics department. He was a statistician. And, he had sort of this funny life where his father—yes, so he lived there, and I spent a lot of time in Chicago. I just had no idea at the time how much fun I was having, because I was just able to, like, really excel. I was excelling socially, I had, as I said, lots of girlfriends, going out, seeing music, and I still had this girl, who I was sort of finding, who was theoretically my girlfriend, even though I was supposed to be with her, and she would come out and visit periodically. And, she was still living in California. And, I'm trying to sort of put together what was going on there that is relevant to my narrative. Like, what was happening in Wisconsin that was relative to—a couple of experiences, yes, a key note, realizing that the drugs were sort of— coming to the end of that sort of piece of narrative of my life.
Dow – 1 – 32 And then, also, my friend who I had grown up with was—I always had lots of friends who were gay. I had Joey, my friend who inherited the money who I spent a lot of time with—he was gay. When I worked on Castro Street, a lot of people thought I was gay. And at that period of time, gay culture was sort of the leading culture in nightlife, so it was kind of—and, one day, my friend Steve and I, we got attacked by a bunch of wrestlers when we were walking home, two carloads. They thought we were gay. And we got gay-bashed. And we managed to get away, but two carloads—they chased us. They broke into our building. We'd got to the building, they just—I really thought I was going to die that night. So, that was another thing. I was kind of like, Wisconsin is fun, but it's also kind of this weird backwater. After the football games, if the football team lost, there'd be—it was usually a nasty night. I saw tons of amazing music. And, I got to be friends with this guy whose father taught at Columbia. And we started playing squash together a lot, and I started to exercise a lot, and he was planning to transfer here.
Q: Here, at Columbia?
Dow: [01:19:46] Yes, at Columbia. And when he got in, he said, Whitney, you should really apply. You should come to New York. You'll have so much fun. You'll fit in better. And at that point, I looked into it, and I think at that point I was twenty or twenty-one. And I couldn't apply to the college at that point, so I applied to G.S. [General Studies], and was accepted. And that summer, I went to Europe. Was it that summer?
Q: So had you been a year in Wisconsin then?
Dow – 1 – 33 Dow: [01:20:48] I'd been a year and a half. That's because I started in January [unclear] and I came through—so that summer, I was studying French. I wanted to study Russian literature. I got into a program at Aix-en-Provence, and I went to Aix-en-Provence, and, I hope I'm not conflating these dates, maybe I am, [crosstalk] but when I went to Aix-en-Provence, I lived with a French family for a summer, and then I traveled around a bit. I went to Berlin, and I went to Denmark. And, I was flying back, and my girlfriend—that girl was living in Cape Cod for the summer—
Q: The same girlfriend?
Dow: [01:21:43] The same one. And I was still very much in love with her. And I came back, and I flew into [Boston] Logan [International Airport] , and [unclear] got to the gate, drove to the gate, or took a bus to the gate, whatever, and got there late, and got to her house. And I went into the house, and she wasn't there. And it was like a [unclear]. And I was really tired. And, I went to get in bed. I figured, I'll just get in bed and wait for her. And I got in bed. And the bed was wet. And I pulled the sheets back. And it was clear somebody had been having sex in the bed. So, devastated, I just got up, packed my bags—and my parents were in Nantucket, and I went—I don't know if I went to a hotel, or I went somewhere else, but I got over there. And, I decided—I feel like I'm trying to remember the trajectory of this, because this seems so crazy. I decided to drive to Chicago to meet my friend. I was, like, so desperate.
Q: The friend that you transferred here—
Dow – 1 – 34 Dow: [01:23:16] No, a different one—Steve, the druggie. And I borrowed my parents' car. They had a Peugeot 504 Diesel. And I drove it to Chicago, and we decided we're going to drive to Mexico. And I spent—it feels like months, it was probably days, maybe a week—on like a crazy bender. Just, like, getting thrown out of every bar in Chicago, and meeting all these people, and these girls, and we were priming for ourselves for some, like, I don't know what. It was kind of like I was trying to forget this woman. I, like, bleached my hair, and, you know—and we got into this car and started driving.
And we drove, and drove, and drove, and drove, and I'll never forget driving for—I must have drove for like fifteen, eighteen hours, and I was finally just like, I'm too tired, you drive. And he was like, okay, I'll drive, and he started driving. And I fell asleep, and I woke up—I woke up, and, like, grass is blowing violently, like in this crazy thing—I suddenly realize we're, like, off the road, in this field, at, like, eighty miles an hour. And he's [unclear] and then he finally, like, pulls and he pops back on. He had fallen asleep, of course, too. And at that point, I was like, well, I guess I'm going to have to drive this entire trip.
And so we took this—we drove down into Mexico. We drove, and drove, and drove, ended in Brownsville, on sort of—I think we were completely, just, hammered the whole way. And drove through Brownsville, slept on the beach with like a pack of dogs attacking us. We drove down into the shittiest part of Mexico, and every day, someone tried to kill us. I don't know how we survived that trip. I have no idea how we survived the trip. We were asking for it. You know, we were, like, in Hawaiian shirts, and bleached blond hair, in our car, drunk as skunks—like, let's go to like the shittiest bar we can find, and get shitfaced with the locals. I mean, it was just like—the
Dow – 1 – 35 first night, people were, like, shooting at the car, and trying to make an escape in a diesel is not—you can't [laughs]—it's like, whirr, whirr.
And, it sort of culminated one night. Like about four or five days in, we were down in something called Tampico—this, like, shithole, and we were at this bar that looked like it was out of a Fellini movie. There were like, you know, transvestites, and midgets, and fishermen, and, you know, beauty queens, and we were drinking with this group of people, and at some point during this, I realized that all these huge Mexican fishermen, you know, they wanted to fuck us. And it was just, like, this revelation where I was like, oh, we've got to get out of here. This is really bad. So I said, "Steve, we've got to go." And then we're like, let's just have one more drink.
And, we finally get out to the car, and I start the car, and put it in gear, and it doesn't go anywhere. And I'm like, what's going on? This feels really weird. And I jump out, and the back tires had both been sliced. It was like a bad movie—like, the lights went on behind us with two cars. And I just, like, took off down—it was on the beach, and [unclear] flat tires, we're driving like seventy miles an hour down the beach, and these cars are chasing us, and we get to this hotel where we were staying. It was, like, had this sort of desire to be engaged in sort of extreme emotion, and romanticism, and extreme ways of thinking and interacting with the world, from, like, Notes from the Underground, to Brothers Karamazov, to any of those things that have these sort of extreme thought processes. And, academically, I sort of struggled here. I got a lot out of it, but I didn't really excel. And, I had a wonderful—I had a few great classes here that sort of really defined my world. I took a year-long poetry class with Kenneth Koch when he was here,
Dow – 1 – 36 when he was alive—who of course didn't particularly like me, because I wasn't a woman. He was such a letch. And then I took Edward Taylor's year-long—is he still alive?
Q: I don't know.
Dow: [01:28:34] Edward Taylor's class in Shakespeare, which was just so mind-opening on so many levels, of narrative, and the way art relates to the world, is connected to the world. And I also struggled in that class, doing well, and I remember going to see him, and he was very nice to me, and he said—and I rode a motorcycle at that time, so I had my motorcycle helmet with me, and he saw the helmet, and he was like, look, I know you're struggling. You're going to be fine. He said, "I got a Fulbright when I was your age, and I took the money, and I bought a motorcycle, and I rode all over Europe with it. I didn't do any work. And, it was the best, most foundational experience of my life." And he was very nice to me in a way.
And then, I had another grad student that taught a foundations of American lit class, where I learned about conversion narratives, as sort of like the foundational work of American literature. And that grad student—there were three teachers I had: one in Wisconsin—he was a history teacher—Professor Taylor, and this grad student, that sort of create a lot of the foundation of the work that I do today. And, it was funny—I was asked by StoryCorps—they did a series on filmmakers—to interview someone who—do a StoryCorps with a teacher that had an impact on them. And I tracked this guy down. He was teaching—I think he was retired at this point. And I did a show with him.
Dow – 1 – 37 Q: Now, is this the professor from Wisconsin, or the grad student?
Dow: [01:30:45] No, this was the grad student. Weirdly, I can't remember—I can probably track down his name, but—it was funny, he's loomed so large in my life, as an influence on me, and it was funny, because the interview—I thought it was going to be this great sort of meeting, and I think that was a letdown for both of us. Also, because you don't realize that people are running their own narrative as well, and his narrative was that he was this kid from Long Island. I think he'd gone to undergrad at, like, Fordham [University] or something, and he was getting his PhD—but he felt like an outsider, too. And he felt like an outsider at Columbia. And, I want to say—where did he end up teaching? Someplace out on Long Island. But there was this level of bitterness in him, which caught me off guard. In some ways I was thinking, it would have been much sort of, like—it didn't make for a great show. I think that probably Professor Taylor would have been better, because he's a really great storyteller.
The other professor at Wisconsin was this guy. He did a class on—and the reason it sort of affects me is that he was such an incredible storyteller. It was on the French Revolution, and he was this little man—probably weighed like 115 pounds. And he wore huge logging boots, and jeans, and a flannel shirt, and glasses, and he would come in. His lecture was probably 300 people—huge lecture hall. Everybody would come, and sort of settle in. And it was a performance. He would come in smoking, sort of out of the winds. And he would just start telling a story about whatever it was, you know—the night Louis the whatever got driven out of town, and paid the coachman, and not realizing that his picture was on the money when he was trying to escape, and the coachman then recognizes him from the money, and then—but, he
Dow – 1 – 38 would start these lectures, and he would tell these stories, and he would sort of whisper, crouch—he would leap in the air, he would throw his glasses. He would whisper. I mean, it was like—
Q: [laughs] Extreme.
Dow: [01:33:30] Extreme. And, I swear, he got a standing ovation after every lecture. And, I know there's professors like that, but it was just this incredible thing. And I think that he taught me a lot about storytelling. And I think that this guy, the grad student, taught me a lot about three-act structure, and sort of how we, as Americans, understand three-act structure is really based in our relationship to Puritanism, and this idea of having a false relationship with God, a false God, a walk in the wilderness, a new creation, you know—and then, that's also false, and then having the final triumph, of a real relationship, and then a denouement. And I use that in my work all the time. I use what I learned in that class, in the basement of Hamilton Hall, wherever it was.
And, it was funny, I never—and this was sort of the story of my life as well, is that when I was young, I never felt—I always felt like an outsider. I always felt like I wasn't part of my community at Cambridge. When I was in school, I felt like an outsider. I wasn't part of the school. When I went to public school, I felt like an outsider. I wasn't part of it. When I went to play in bands, I felt like I wasn't really good enough. When I was in San Francisco, I was kind of an outsider in this world. When I was in Wisconsin, I wasn't of Wisconsin. I was kind of an
Dow – 1 – 39 outsider. I wasn't really part of this thing. When I went to Columbia, I really felt like an outsider here, too.
At the time, I think that—I don't know if it's still that way, but I'm sure it is—if being in GS feels—you felt like you were a second-class citizen, that you weren't really at Columbia, you were at General Studies. And, to this day, I still feel—I try and tell people, because I feel like, well, that's bullshit. But, you absolutely felt like a second-class citizen. And, it was, I think, the year I graduated when they first had women at Columbia. So, I think all, sort of, the insecurities I felt about my academic world were caught up in that. And then, there not really being a community here was hard. So I had lots of—I had a group of friends at Columbia—and plus, I was older. I think at that point, I was much—two or three years in undergrad, it seems like you're a lot older than a lot of the grad students. And plus, by the time I got here, I had lived so much more than most of the kids who were coming out of school. They were sort of, oh, look—they were experiencing drugs for the first time, or they were sort of going crazy, and I was sort of exhausted from that, and felt much, much more adult than most of the population here, that the life that I had led was so much broader than most of the people here.
Q: It probably helped you write poetry, though.
Dow: [01:37:35] Yes. I, for a while, thought I was going to be a poet. I wrote endless amounts of poetry. I loved poetry, and read and wrote endless amounts of poetry. And, there was a group of students from Columbia, a group of students from Cooper Union who had found this house in [phonetic] Harriman, and it was this abandoned house, on a hundred acres, and it had belonged
Dow – 1 – 40 to Averell Harriman's accountant. And, a couple of them moved in, and a group of us kind of took the house over, and found the landlord. And it was on a hundred acres, and lots of local kids were getting in it, and partying. And it was a danger. So we asked if we could rent it. I think they rented the house—it had two houses, and a hundred acres—for $40 a month. And all the windows had been knocked out. There was no electricity.
So, on the weekends, we worked on this house, and wired it with extension cords. And, it had like—nobody died there—like eighteen wood-burning fireplaces. There was no—we would just plug them into the wall. And, just, it became this place where this group from Columbia and a group from Cooper would go on the weekends, and it just became this center of—it was, like, competitive talking. And there was, like, music, talking, chess, and drinking, and eating, and just these massive meals. And at the time, we would throw these parties that became sort of notorious at Columbia, because we would put them, and like 500 people would come out and spend the night. And we'd have these huge bonfires in the woods, and just these incredible—we had these Halloween parties that were just, like, insane, with bands, and drummers, and DJs. So, I had that community, which was a little bit off. It was, like, of Columbia, but it wasn't.
And, I spent a lot of time—the parts of New York that—New York of that era was just so wonderful. And I spent a lot of time going out, and going to nightclubs, and I had a lot of gay friends. I always tended to be friends more with gay men and women than heterosexual men. And, I had a met a friend—I met this woman on the subway who'd gone to Barnard, and she sort of knew every doorman in the city, and we'd go out all the time. So, my time was sort of
Dow – 1 – 41 interesting in that—again, I felt like a real outsider, that—I didn't really go to Columbia, I went to General Studies. I didn't live on campus. I was older.
You know, I think it kind of fed in throughout my life, always feeling like something was always missing. Like, I was almost really smart. I couldn't quite grasp what I wanted to grasp. I couldn't write the way I wanted. I couldn't quite say what I wanted to say.
And then, at the same time, my friend, who I had come here from Wisconsin with—he was living with his father and his father's boyfriend. His father was gay. And they were some of the first two people to contract AIDS. And this was, again, probably '83. And, when you were diagnosed with AIDS, at that point, you were almost dead. And it was the most horrific, brutal death. And going through the process—first his boyfriend died, then his father died, and they died, just, horrifically. And I remember spending a lot of time at their house during that period, and time at the hospital. And, still, I was ultimately the best man at his wedding, and we remained friends. He got married on campus here. I still, when I see him today, I always ask him about his father, still, 35 years later. It was such a sort of traumatic event for him, understandably. And at the same time, being in New York at that time, there were so many people who had AIDS.
Q: I was here then, living in the [Greenwich] Village.
Dow: [01:44:08] Yes, just, like, the numbers of people I know that died. And, like—just died. So, my years at Columbia were—they feel very much like a blur. I'm trying to even remember
Dow – 1 – 42 what the summers looked like, what the time looked like. I had such a hard time graduating. I had such a hard time finishing. I got to my last semester, and I couldn't focus. I couldn't get my work done. I started seeing a psychiatrist, because I was so, just, confused about why I couldn't do anything. When I graduated, I was missing a couple of credits. I had to go take [Karl – Ludwig] Selig's Don Quixote course over the summer, to complete it. And, I think I kind of left college feeling defeated, that all the things I was concerned about in myself were kind of borne out—that I couldn't learn Russian, I had to do this—I couldn't get my grades up. I'd be shocked to look at my transcript and see what it is. I'm sure I was like a C student. But, at the same time, in retrospect, the things that I learned here are the things that I draw on all the time.
Q: Which is, after all, the purpose of education.
Dow: [01:46:18] Right. Not getting the grade, theoretically. But, at the time, it doesn't feel that way. So, after college, my sister was friends with a woman named Kate Harrington, who went to Barnard, and she had been raised by Truman Capote.
Q: I thought I had heard her name, yes.
Dow: [01:47:11] And I needed a job. And, she knew Gail Love, and Andy Warhol. And so she said, "Oh, yes, they're looking for someone to work at Interview." I said, I'll go—I'd love that job. So I went down—she got me the job. I remember going to interview with Gail Love, who was the publisher. And I think that she thought because Kate was recommending me that I was some sort of “person”, you know. I'll never forget, in the interview, she was like, "So, who's your
Dow – 1 – 43 father?" And, I was like, "Peter Dow," you know? I think she thought I was [laughs]—and she said, "Oh, well, I don't know if you really want this job—there's no possibility for advancement. You're going to be the receptionist. I don't want to hear any"—she was so mean. She was so horrible. I said, "Yes, I want it." And, in the middle of the interview—so, I said, "Okay, I'll be the receptionist at The Factory." Because the Factory was like one building—it was Interview, and The Factory—they were in the same building.
And, the second day, this woman came, and was like, "I want to talk to you." Her name was Paige [phonetic], and she went and said, "I want him." And she took me into the advertising department, and I became an advertising assistant.
And, it was a time when Andy was around all the time, and he would sort of materialize behind you, and be like, "What are you doing?" And you'd be like, "I'm writing an invoice." And he’d say, "What's an invoice?" "Well, you know, you paint a painting, and you have to charge them for it, so I have to write up what it costs, and send it out." And he'd be like, "You're amazing, you're so smart. You know so much. How do you know these things? You're incredible—just so incredible." And then he'd just, like, walk away. Even in the kitchen. "What are you doing?" "Preparing manicotti. You know, you have your advertising coming in—they're having a lunch for them, so I'm putting the food out from the caterer." "What's manicotti?" "It's a noodle, and it has cheese in it, and sauce." "How do you know that? You know so much. You're incredible. How do you know so much? You know. Really, really, really incredible." And then he'd just, like, disappear. And he sort of had this thing he would do with you all the time.
Dow – 1 – 44 So, I was working there, in the advertising department. I was sort of like the token heterosexual who would carry boxes, because there were all these sort of like steroided-out gay men from the '80s with these massive muscles—they didn't want to carry anything. So I was sort of like this scrawny little guy who would go down to carry the magazines around. And, one day they sent me to Chicago. They were selling advertising. They would go to shows, and try and get people to buy advertising. And I remember they sent me to Chicago to put magazines at some trade show, and I went with boxes and boxes and boxes of Interviews. And there were sales kits, and I would go out. And they put me up in like the Ritz-Carlton—I'm sure they had some deal with them. I'm staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, with all these things—and I'm supposed to go to McCormick Place the next day. I'm watching TV, and the news came on. They're like, Andy Warhol had died. And, I called, and I said, "What do I do?" And they said, "Get back here—just dump the magazines somewhere." And so I thought about it, and I called up Columbia College— Columbia in Chicago, the art school, and I said, "I have all these Interview magazines, can I bring them to the school?" And they said, yes. And I drove a van over to the school, and went into the first building—like, the main building, and just dumped all the magazines out on the floor. And the kids just all came and swarmed—because it was like every issue from every year—there was so much artwork and everything in it. They just—
Q: Oh, they were beautiful.
Dow: [01:52:31] Yes. So, I worked there for a little bit. And I remember, I was working for this woman, and she ran the advertising. She had this dog named Andy, after Andy Warhol, this Dalmatian. I have to walk the dog during the day, pick up dog shit. I just remember feeling like,
Dow – 1 – 45 what the fuck? Here I'm, like, Ivy League education, I'm picking up dog shit. And at the time, there was a woman who worked in the department named Sharon Fair [phonetic], and she had a friend who had a friend who knew this guy who was starting a sailing business in New York. And somehow we got on the subject, and she was like, oh, you should meet this guy.
And I went down, and I met this guy, Michael Fortenbaugh, and he and his friends had started the first recreational sailing club in New York City at South Street Seaport. And a lightbulb went off, and I was like, this is what I should be doing. He and his partner had had a bit of a falling out, and he was looking for someone to come work with them. And we really hit it off, and I said, this is something that would be amazing to do. And I quit my job at Interview, and I went into business with him. And, it was insane. We had twelve boats. And, we created a corporate sailboat racing league. And people would get sails with their logos on it, and they would race against each other, and we had a bar. We would videotape the races. And sailboat races take a long time.
And, we had a VHS camera, and a guy on a boat, and he would drive around. I got really into directing the camera boat. And then we'd go back to the bar, put the tape in the VCR, and then people would watch the races, and drink. And we'd actually make money from the liquor. And for a couple of years, I was on the water every day. We had a sailing program for adults, I started a nonprofit called Project City Kids that was teaching kids sailing. I was racing all around the country in different boats with this guy who was a very, very talented sailor. I did a race around France called the Tour de France à la Voile, which is a forty-day race around the coast. The business was growing. I think I was twenty-four at the time, and we had a fifty-five-foot old
Dow – 1 – 46 powerboat, and we probably had like twenty people working for us, and we would throw these parties.
Q: Sounds great!
Dow: [01:57:06] It was so much fun. We would rent out the whole Puck Building first floor, and put on a party for like 5,000 people, and make like $50,000 in a night. And we'd rent abandoned buildings. We had built up a big mailing list from all these things, and we just started putting these huge parties on. And we had a personal sponsorship from like Moët & Chandon. They would just come and deliver pallets of liquor to us. They would just load it on the boat. And, I can't even believe, again, the stuff that we were doing—it was just, like, the '80s. It was so overthe-top—berserk. So I went from being the receptionist to having this business, and doing a lot of press. And we got a lot of coverage in the New York press about it, because we were the first commercial sailing—and, the whole thing was just [pauses] at that point, I was now living with this girl after college, and it was such a problematic relationship.
Q: Which person was this now?
Dow: [01:58:44] The high-school girlfriend. Now we were back together. And I think that I then—at one point I had hired—I used to hire the Columbia bartenders to come to our parties, they have those student bartenders. And, I fell in love with one of them, and sort of started to court her—I was living with this woman. And when I finally—before anything happened, I said, "Look, I have to tell you, I'm living with this woman." And it blew up the relationship, of course,
Dow – 1 – 47 because she was not an idiot. And I just realized that I had to leave, and I just packed up in the middle of the night, one night, called my brother, asked him to come get me, and I moved into something called the Carlton Arms Hotel, which is—do you know the Carlton Arms? So I was moved into this room with a hasp on the outside of the door—you had to bring your own padlock. And the room was painted all black.
At that time, I was going to work in a suit and tie every day, a bowtie, and I was riding my motorcycle, and it was, like, all drug addicts and punk rockers, and then me and my little bowtie. And the room was painted all black, and it just had a picture on the wall, that said, like, "Live fast and die young." It was, like, a woman under a streetlight. And it had no phone, so she couldn't reach me, and that's why I moved there, because I was like, I need to be someplace where I can't be reached. So during that period, we're having this incredible thing—we start putting on these regattas. We'd invite teams from around the world that would come, and these big parties, and we're getting all kinds of sponsorship. And we got a lot of interest in franchising the business around the country. And we flew to Florida to make this franchise deal that was really going to kind of consolidate everything. And when we got back—we flew back in the morning and picked up the paper, and it was Black Monday. The stock market crashed. And needless to say, the corporate sailboat racing league was the first thing to go. [laughs]
Q: Talk about a stopping point, literally.
Dow: [02:01:24] Yes, so that just blew up the business, and led to the money—my partner and I were very different types of people, and the money that sort of greased the sharp edges between
Dow – 1 – 48 us, once it stopped flowing, it became a very contentious—there was a lot of blame. And, we got to the point where we couldn't even—we worked in an office this size, and we communicated by memo. And ultimately, he got together with three people on the board, and him, and his investors, and they threw me out of the company. Maybe that's a good place to stop. Yes, so what had happened, though, at the same time, during that—I'll tell you one more story.
When we would have these parties, about a year before the end of that business, I had gone to a party, and I had met this woman, and at this point, I was no longer with the high school sweetheart. And my partner had met this woman, and he really liked her. I think he wanted to date her. I guess they had gone out a few times. And I liked her, but I kind of deferred to him. And she was friends with the woman who had introduced me to my partner originally—they had grown up together. And so, I was interested in her, but I didn't want to sort of like step on my partner's toes, so—they didn't really work out, so about a year later, I invited her to one of our— we rented Pier 17, or something—we used to rent, where we'd take the whole [unclear] and do these parties. And I invited her.
And I spent a lot of time with her that night, and we really kind of hit it off, and the next day was my birthday, I think. And it being the '80s, I had met some kid who had had a really rich family, and he had Al Capone's old boat, which was like this 180-foot boat called, like, the Americana, that had been redone by Ralph Lauren. It was just this beautiful, huge boat. And he said, "Oh, it's your birthday? Well, why don't we just have the party on my boat?" So, he came down, and he just threw me this huge party on this boat. And I invited this girl, and we went down. And I'd learned how to—because of this sponsor—how to saber Champagne bottles, and I used to chop
Dow – 1 – 49 off the top with a big knife. And I was chopping Champagne bottles. And I just remember it being so decadent. The guy whose boat it was was just taking bottle after bottle of Champagne, opening them, and just spraying them all over the side of the boat. He wasn't even drinking them. It was so decadent.
Q: And this is your twenty-fifth birthday?
Dow: [02:05:14] Twenty-sixth birthday. No it was during my twenty-fifth birthday. It was the most decadent—driving around New York Harbor in this opulent, beautiful boat. It looked like a prop from, like, a Ralph Lauren ad, which it was. And all this dancing—there was a DJ, and, just, again, I just remember seeing the guy pouring bottle after bottle of Champagne over the side of the boat. It was just this crazy time. And I guess why it's relevant is that that woman I started to be very interested in. And at the same time she had a very serious boyfriend, who was a kayaker.
And at the time, I was very involved in the solo sailing scene. In France, there's a lot of people who sail around the world by themselves. It's a very sort of viable professional sport there. And in 1854, this clipper ship called the Flying Cloud sailed from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn, in, I think, 154 days. It became this record nobody could beat. And my partner and I became the official timekeepers of the record. I'm trying to remember—I have no idea how it happened. So, these boats would come, from France usually, and we'd go out to the Statue of Liberty with a stopwatch, and fire a gun, and they would sail off. And then we'd get on a plane
Dow – 1 – 50 and fly out to San Francisco, and, like, time them coming in, three months later. And nobody could break this record.
And then, this guy showed up—[unclear] this guy Philippe Monnet. And he was this exmotocross racer, you know, really wealthy guy. He was a sailor. And he was a single-handed sailor. He was going to break this record. And he came over in this huge trimaran that he put at our docks. And he was like an F1 driver—he had sort jumpsuits with logos on it, and all these people working. He was the most professional, quiet guy. And I got to be sort of friends with him, and I'd help him work on his boat, and help him—he had to get things machined, I could tell him where to get things machined. And he was preparing for this trip.
And at the same time, Thomasine's boyfriend wanted to be the youngest person—the person to sail the smallest boat around Cape Horn. And he was a kayaker, so—and I don’t know if you know, Klepper kayak, so he had this folding kayak, and he was going to—so he was always in training. He went off on this adventure. I kind of moved in a little bit on his girlfriend, and we started sort of going out and stuff.
So, anyway, this French guy was going to sail to San Francisco, and the last night before he was going to leave, he had this big sponsor dinner, and he invited me to come out with my partner, and I invited this woman to come with us. And [unclear] sort of very serious, businessman sponsor talking about, you know, man against the sea, and whatever [unclear] professionalism. And when we were leaving, we said, "Well, we're going out for a drink, do you want to come
Dow – 1 – 51 with us?" Never thinking that this guy who's leaving for this record attempt the next day—and he said, "Sure, I'll come with you."
And we went out, and we proceeded to have, like, one of the most debauched nights I have ever had in my life. He started to drink like I've never seen anybody drink. And he was with his manager, and he was drinking so much that I would have to buy the glasses with the drink, because he would drink and then smash the glass. And the bars wouldn't, like—every time—I had to pay for the glasses in advance, because I knew he would break them all. We got kicked out of all these bars. We ended up on this bar on the Upper West Side, and he was, like, just saying, "You've been so incredible to me. It's been such a wonderful—" He just, like, totally transformed.
By the end of the night, he, like, had his pants down, and his dick out, and he, like, swept off this table full of drinks and sort of collapsed naked. And I was just, like, holy shit. And I was with this woman, and my partner, and his manager is there, and he's like, "He does this every time." Like, he thinks he never—he could die, so he sort of has this [unclear]. And we had to go to a press conference—by that point, it was like six in the morning, and we loaded him into the limousine, and he's vomiting everywhere. And we go to the press conference—he's throwing up at the press conference. The manager's telling all the sponsors that he gets so nervous. [laughs]
And after this press conference, he gets completely drunk, and sails off. We fire the gun, and he sails off into the Atlantic Ocean. So he's sailing—and he's doing really well, because we're tracking him, and everything. And when he gets down towards South America, he hits a
Dow – 1 – 52 container—you know, a container. It puts a hole in his boat. And the boat's sinking, so he patches it up, and he sails it up on the beach to patch it. And he's on the beach, and he's working on the boat, and around the corner comes a guy in a kayak. He says, "What are you doing?" "I'm trying to sail to San Francisco." And he stops, and they're in Patagonia, there's no one on this abandoned beach. And he says, "Can I help you?" And they work on the boat together, and this guy Howard helps him fix his boat. “Where are you from?” “New York.” “ Oh, I have friends in New York, you know—I'm great friends with Whitney and his girlfriend Thomasine.” [laughs] And so that was how he found out—I guess he had bought her a ring. He was planning to, like, propose to her, but that was the moment when he'd realized that he had lost her. That was sort of the moment she became my girlfriend, who's now been my wife for twenty-five years.
Q: That's an incredible story.
Dow: [02:12:11] But, the way to end it—a good place to end it is that, so, this was the woman that I courted when I had parties on Al Capone's boat, and twenty-five employees, and my own fifty-foot powerboat. We'd go out and watch the fireworks, and I had a sponsorship—and then when we were going out, it all came crashing down, and I lost everything. And the IRS. [Internal Revenue Service] seized my bank accounts, and everything. And within six months of Black Monday, I was bussing tables at Gulf Coast [phonetic], that restaurant on the West Side Highway. And, my life since always sort of goes like this, and that was sort of going from sort of like the top of the mountain to that. And I remember just being—people would come in, who were old, people who had come to my party would say, "Are you Whitney?" I'd be like, "No, I'm not Whitney." I would just, I don't know what you're talking about, I'm Joe, or whatever. [laughs]
Dow – 1 – 53 I would just pretend I wasn't the person—it was so humiliating, to go from being the person who had everything, to the person who was bussing tables, and cleaning up drinks at a bar.
Q: She stuck with you.
Dow: [02:14:10] So far.
Q: What a great place to stop for today. Thank you so much. God, I appreciate it. I really appreciate the depth.
Dow: [02:14:21] Yes, I hope it's—I don't know what's relevant and what's not, but—
Q: It's all relevant. Thank you.
Dow: [02:14:27] I don't know how it's relevant to—
Q: It's relevant to the project of documenting your life. That's what I do, is I just—so, thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]